I’ve been busy reengaging with work and .org after my typical year-end blackout. My usual process has been to document planned changes prior to the season starting. That has led to disconnect between what I thought would be ready for the Christmas lights display and what actually was.
I’ll try something from WordPress.org by adding a look-back model to document and evaluate changes, having lived through the pain points, instead of trying to guess what they are ahead of time. For 2020 – a year that was novel to say the least – things were challenging. That being said, objectively, 2020 was the best and most popular season so far.
After 2019 and the growing maturity of the display and my processes, I had hoped to incorporate a new Halloween show. It seems to be a natural progression that a display is, at first, Christmas only, then sprawls to Halloween. Some even go further to have their display up year-round, and I see the benefits of “getting more bang for the buck” out of a display when the capital investment is not small.
For me, 2020 would’ve been the first attempt at a Halloween display. I acquired the props, pixels, controllers, and everything else I needed hardware-wise. I also decided to use purchased sequences to lighten my load a little. Logistically, I was prepared. However, after speaking with some town officials, we decided to announce the cancellation of the Halloween display due to COVID-19.
The main reason is just a difference in how the show is consumed by onlookers. Christmas is mostly a sit-in-your-car-and-watch affair. Halloween adds a trick-or-treating layer that involves much closer contact between myself and visitors and amongst visitors themselves. The possibility of people congregating was too much. I didn’t want a Super-Spreader event traced back to my house.
So, no Halloween show for 2020. The plan is to try again for 2021, if it’s deemed much safer.
Display Changes for Christmas 2020
Last year, the display reached a level I finally felt was “good enough”, in terms of prop density, number and quality of sequences, general attendance, and overall quality of production. The goal for 2020 was to improve all four aspects.
Added elements included a second show status display board(referred to as a “tune-to sign”), a second mega tree, dense meshes of lights on both palm tree trunks, more snowflakes, and a denser ground outline. One planned element that did not make it was a very large matrix on the house, which simply suffered from me biting off more than I could chew. It was just too big and heavy to setup at the start of a season and store in the off-season.
For sequences, I started with the same playlist from 2019 which included only three songs. However, adding third-party sequences allowed me to swap songs in and out, and I ended up with 7 total sequenced songs that rotated.
The quality of sequencing also improved. I’ve learned to give each song a specific “wow moment” that serves a couple of purposes. First, this breaks up the monotony during a 15 minute show. With a lack of artistry and creativity, there are only so many prop-effect combinations I can personally come up with. Secondly, this adds more “hooks” to those just entering the neighborhood. With the show being 15 minutes long, vehicles come and go throughout, so it’s nice to catch them quickly.
Attendance was much improved. I can point to a few reasons why:
- Audience carryover from 2019
- COVID limiting other entertainment choices for families
- Better marketing
For #2, the added layer is that people were looking for some extra happiness, but #3 was definitely the greatest impact. Along with the local newspaper touting the display, it was picked up by several TV news station websites in Jacksonville and Gainesville.
Next, I decided to put the tune-to signs out very early with a “Show Starts in X Days” countdown, and I promoted the same on the display’s Facebook page. Being the second, “full-up” year for the display(fourth in total), I was more confident in my pre-season testing, setup processes, and general readiness. Ergo, I was able to not only set an exact start date but also have the complete display erected and fully functional from night one.
The website was upgraded from pure React to Next.js for better SEO/discoverability. A “Sticker Request” button was added at the top the site. Visitors could hit the button and I would approach them with stickers for the kids. Underneath the hood, each request simply sends me an SMS message. Then, it’s up to me to determine which vehicle made the request Finally, a weather element as added to provide not only current conditions but a forecast for the next evening.
Other improvements included adding IP cameras to monitor the display and traffic levels, purchasing a wireless headset microphone for me to direct visitor actions, and higher quality stickers.
The ultimate marker here is that show attendance was, at least, tripled YOY. It’s hard to quantify vehicle traffic, but I feel this is a reasonable guesstimate.
Website & Social Media
Website views skyrocketed from direct and referral users. Direct traffic is a good indicator of actual, in-person viewers of the display. Referrals from local/regional media increased dramatically, and social virility was two orders of magnitude greater in 2020 versus 2019. Facebook page likes increased by 600%.
In-Person Vehicle Traffic
Traffic control was made much easier with the addition of real-time direction from me via the wireless microphone tied in to the display’s FM radio station. As viewers left between sequences, I could advance and tighten remaining and new traffic. At the same time, I could ask vehicles to turn off headlights and keep their radios at reasonable levels. To keep my neighbors happy, I would also ask that departing traffic not use any driveways to turn around and, instead, exit in a specific fashion. Finally, I could again promote the show’s social channels and the free stickers.
For the display itself, it was much more, albeit not completely, weather hearty. Even with a severe storm that produced a tornado only 1/4 mile away, everything remained not only standing but mostly functional. During this storm, I actually went inside and was afraid to come back out, fearing complete destruction. Our peak wind was 64 MPH, and the only adverse effect was that the mega tree stars turned edge-on into that wind. Incredibly, no other display element was affected.
At the end of the season, increased display modularity and a familiar process led to quicker tear-down. Everything was back in storage within 10 days.
Although I mentioned improved weather heartiness above, rain is still a problem. The arches and verticals on the house are LED strip, and they just cannot deal with moisture. While 2020’s display contained about 0.75 miles of cabling – some of it submerged in puddles at various points – I still need to improve the seals on these strips. The main side effect is shorting/flickering of the props at higher current draws(full white). Most viewers don’t notice, but I do.
In-Person Vehicle Traffic
Again, I mentioned increased traffic and control therein as a success, but it could’ve been better. Some vehicles still used neighborhood driveways to turn around, left their headlights on, and/or blocked through traffic. Given the increasing popularity of the show, I am worried about its trajectory and an increase in problem visitors.
The increased traffic also led to a very big irritation: sales pitches. Being the one directing traffic every night made me vulnerable to various cold-calls for services, including landscaping, handyman, roofing, and a lot more. This led to providers returning during daylight hours for a more in-depth pitch. I need to get better at saying “no.”
One visitor pitch I was repeatedly flattered with was the offer of monetary donations. On countless occasions, I had to turn down a money-in-hand offer by attendees. Although generous, I was unprepared and uncomfortable accepting money for something that brings me enough return in the form of smiling faces and dancing children. After some thought and suggestions, I’d like to flip this over to the success column by accepting money and sending a big check to a local charity every season.
Similar to 2019, the plan was to product a video of the complete show. I also wanted to add drone footage. With increased vehicle traffic, I had less opportunities to shoot video.
Looking Ahead to 2021
As mentioned, I’d like to lengthen the season by adding the Halloween show, but I’m at the mercy of a global pandemic for 2021. I also have already purchased and built new props for Christmas, and I’ll be investing more in my processes. Goals include:
- Migrating to the ASAP pole for mega trees
- Large, mesh-based matrix
- Better marketing in leadup to the season
- Automatic, passive monitoring and counting of vehicle traffic
- Improved off-season storage
- In-show, post-playlist visitor direction with professional voiceover
- Accepting donations to benefit a local charity
If you have any comments and/or suggestions on things I could do better, please reach out. As we get closer to the end of the year, I’ll still release a preseason post that more concretely outlines what will make it in 2021.